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Natural Eye

Four decades of the work of Brett Weston
Barbara Tannenbaum,  Curator of Photography
December 26, 2017
Landscape, Glen Canyon, c. 1960. Brett Weston (American, 1911–1993). 2017.139

“Nature is a great artist. The greatest,” said Brett Weston, who made it his primary subject matter. “I’ve seen rocks and forms that put Matisse and Picasso and Brancusi to shame. You can’t beat Mother Nature. The thing that amazed me was realizing that I could capture this in a second with my eye and camera. The vision controls the tool.”1

The photographer’s eye is at the heart of this exhibition, which surveys four decades of Weston’s work. Drawn entirely from the museum’s collection, the show marks the debut of a very generous gift. Included are more than 40 of the 51 photographs from the Brett Weston Archive donated in 2017 by collector Christian Keesee, who lives in New York City and Oklahoma City.

Brett, son of the soon-to-become legendary photographer Edward Weston, was born in Los Angeles in 1911. At age 14, he joined Edward and his companion Tina Modotti in Mexico and there made his first photographs. Two years later, he was exhibiting alongside Edward in a Los Angeles show. In 1929 both men were included in the Film und Foto exhibition in Germany, an international bellwether for modernist photography. Brett’s work displayed an experimental vigor that caught the eye of avant-garde practitioners in Europe and America. Among the photographers he influenced was his own father. Edward switched to the glossier, sharper, and higher-contrast gelatin silver papers that would become characteristic of modernist photography after seeing Brett’s work with the process.

Brett photographed exclusively out-of-doors, sometimes in cities but more often on the beaches and hills around Monterey, California. His persona was that of an ascetic, living modestly and devoting his life to creating pictures that communicated an uncompromising vision. Later in life, Weston’s success allowed him to indulge a taste for fine cars and to explore more distant and exotic environments.

Cracked Plastic Paint, Garrapata, 1954. Brett Weston. Gelatin silver print; 34.6 x 26 cm. Gift from the Christian Keesee Collection, 2017.142. © The Brett Weston Archive

Wherever he photographed—California, Hawaii, Mexico, or Europe—Weston’s way of seeing remained constant. His photographs were always anchored in representation and straight photography, but even as a young artist he moved toward boldly graphic, rhythmic compositions that verged on the abstract. Weston’s works encourage prolonged exploration and slow, meditative looking. They set up, then confound, expectations. Many are close-ups or details in which the patterns and rhythms of dark and light appear first, then their locations and orientations in a landscape are revealed. “It seems to me,” Weston wrote, “that this powerful duality, this combination of the abstract, in the emphasis upon form, and the sense of presence, in the rendering of light and substance, is something only photography can do.”2 

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Weston remained a photographer’s photographer, admired for his formalist inventiveness and technical virtuosity, but little known outside the then insular field. In the 1960s and 1970s, as fine art photography entered the mainstream art world and captured popular imagination, Weston finally gained fame and fortune. His were the lyrical yet formally adventurous nature photographs emulated by thousands of amateurs and professionals. His was the vision that helped shape how many of us see the natural world.

Plants and Leaves, Hawaii, c. 1985. Brett Weston. Gelatin silver print; 34.9 x 26.8 cm. Gift from the Christian Keesee Collection, 2017.168. © The Brett Weston Archive

His colleague Ansel Adams likened the negative to a musical score and the print to its performance. Weston firmly believed that “no one can print another photographer’s negatives. It’s just too personal. There are infinite choices to make.”3  He was determined that no one else should print his negatives, because no one else could print them the same way he had. In 1991, when Weston turned 80, he destroyed most of his negatives. Two years later, he died.

After Weston’s death, his fame diminished and he was relegated to the shadow of his famous father. Brett became a footnote, categorized as a second-generational practitioner of modernism in the histories of photography then being written. Yet he was there at the beginning and, despite his young age, participated in the first wave of the movement. Over the past few years, a reexamination of Weston’s photographs has led to a renewed appreciation of his contributions to the field and has helped introduce his art to a new generation. 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2018

1. James Danziger and Barnaby Conrad III, “Brett Weston,” Interviews with Master Photographers (New York: Paddington Press, 1977), 171.
2. Quoted in Beaumont Newhall, afterword to Brett Weston: Voyage of the Eye with Photographs of Hawaii, 1978–1992, rev. ed., by Brett Weston (New York: Aperture, 1992).
3. Brett Weston, Brett Weston: Voyage of the Eye (New York: Aperture, 1975), n.p.